Mezcal: A Brief History

Effie Efthymiadi
Photography: Dylanne Lee

August 30 2015

“Don’t forget, it should be kissed, not shot,” our mezcal expert instructed us, once he detected our automatic inclination to down the liquor in one gulp, a residue of tequila-binging habits in high school. And he was right: savoring is key with mezcal. As the alcoholic nectar coats the palate and then the throat in a silky liquid film, it evokes many complex nuances, with earth and smoke being the most readily identifiable ones.

“It’s like drinking 10 yards of barbed wire,” wrote Malcolm Lowry in his novel Under the Volcano. Nowadays, mezcal connoisseurs would vehemently disagree, defending that artisanal versions of the spirit can easily compete with the highest ranks of whiskeys. Mezcal – as its name suggests in the indigenous Nahuatl language – is a distilled beverage made from the cooked saps of various maguey plants, or agave, endemic to Oaxaca, the most culturally and ethnically diverse state in Mexico. The drink’s flavor – full-bodied, acutely smoky and multi-layered – is largely determined by the type of maguey used for its production, as well as individual traditional techniques able to yield highly distinctive results. Good mezcal is exclusively handcrafted by small-scale producers using centuries-old methods, and that truly becomes apparent in the taste. In all of Oaxaca, locals believe the drink to possess curative powers and have devised an encouraging proverb for it: “For everything bad, mezcal, and for everything good, too.”

Agave, the primary constituent of mezcal, is a succulent plant that was an important nutrient and medicinal source for southwestern American tribes. The most common variety used for the drink’s production is espadín, a cultivated maguey requiring eight years to mature in the ground, in comparison to other rare and sought-after wild species, like tombola, which can take up to 25 years to reach a sufficiently ripe stage. In pre-Hispanic Mexico, the maguey was revered as a sacred plant, holding a prominent position in religious rituals. In another part of the globe, according to Greek mythology, Agave was the goddess of desire who helped raise the infant Dionysus – the father of bacchanals and profound inebriation, which might explain a lot about the plant’s equally well-nurtured nectar. The prickly plant with its fleshy pointy tongues was personified in Mayahuel, the Mexican goddess of fertility and nourishment. Perhaps the agave most of us know is in the form of a fad syrup that was supposedly a healthy alternative to sugar – yet another myth surrounding the plant, but that’s a different story. More so than anything else, the maguey is blessed with the clear juice that gives us the superior liquor.

Aside from the raw material’s unique nature, what grants mezcal its charm is the complexity of the production process. It’s certainly no mean feat – a series of arduous tasks is essential for the elixir to flow in all its transparent glory. After harvesting the agave plants’ piñas, or hearts, they cook them in stone-lined pits over wood fires of oak or mesquite. The maestro mezcalero’s maxim is quite simple: no stone pit, no smokiness; no smokiness, no artisanal mezcal. Out of superstition, if an outsider visits the palenque at this stage, they’re asked to throw one of the hearts in the fire to avoid mal de ojo: bad luck.

Smell and taste are the distillers’ only instruments to decide whether fermentation is finished. During fermentation, almost two-thirds of the final product are defined, thus, distillation can only deduct certain elements but not introduce new ones. By law and tradition, two distillations are required to procure the cuerpo (body) and the collas (tails). To determine the standards of the liquor, producers use a method called “pearling,” where they pour the young spirit in a gourd bowl with a hollow cane. The pearls forming on the surface are indicators of quality, but can also reveal the alcoholic content to the experienced eye. In comparison to whisky, mezcal is best left to mature in neutral containers made out of glass or clay, to avoid shrouding the delicate aromas of the agave. As it ages, it becomes rounder and smoother, but many agree that great mezcal is unmediated by oak or any form of long-term aging.

The autochthonous spirit must now acclimatize to its growing popularity, which begs the question: what will happen next? Small traditional operations don’t have the infrastructure to satisfy the market’s increasing demand for good mezcal and thus bigger companies have jumped on the mezcal wave, trying to capitalize on the spirit’s prominence. However, mass-production, industrialized means and, of course, younger magueyes cannot produce a high-quality spirit. Therefore, such efforts will ultimately lead to disappointing versions of mezcal, much like it happened with tequila. One has to question the changes in effect as the market for mezcal is expanding. The real peril lies in the industrialized production of the drink: it’s completely foreign, and going against inherent qualities of the drink, agave and water supply is not sufficient for such grand scales. This boom can potentially endanger numerous maguey species and harm small businesses if the global market is not well-informed about the spirit’s traditions, quality variations and genuine taste. 

Read the unabridged version of this article at Freunde von Freunden, where it originally appeared. 

Special thanks to Effie Efthymiadi and Stephanie Zingg.